The Derby Poisoner

Sherman was known in Courant headlines as the "Derby Poisoner," the "Wickedest Woman" and the "Woman Monster."

Lydia Sherman's propensity for tiring of her husbands and their children and her skill at concocting poisonous beverages sent 11 souls to early graves by the time she died at Wethersfield State Prison in 1878. It wasn't until her third husband succumbed to the deep rest of death that anyone caught on.

And his death apparently was a mistake on her part.

Sherman was arrested in June 1871, charged with murdering her third husband, Horatio N. Sherman, in Derby.

In a confession while she was in jail in New Haven, she explained that she only meant to kill his children.

The unfortunate Mr. Sherman was known as a drinking man, and he may have unwittingly mixed the arsenic that his wife had bought to kill rats — and his children — with his cider.

Lydia Sherman also is believed to have dispatched her first two husbands — Edward Struck and Dennis Hurlburt — in addition to an estimated five to eight children. She confessed to murdering four of the children.

Struck, described as a widower with two children, served on a police force in a New York suburb. A detective was killed "in a row in a saloon" when Struck was supposed to be on duty but was away without leave, and he lost his job as a result.

"Unable to get any work, he was a burden to his wife," according to The Courant's account of her confession in 1872. It was headlined "Confession of the Derby Poisoner: The Connecticut Borgia," likening her to the historic Lucrezia Borgia, the famed poisoner of the Renaissance's Borgia family.

After killing Struck, her husband of seven years, Sherman killed their three young children — Martha, 6, Edward Jr., almost 4, and William, 9 months. She was still struggling to make ends meet, so Struck's two older children from his first marriage also were "hurried into eternity."

She worked as a nurse and at a sewing machine store.

Casting about for a new husband, she married an older man named Dennis Hurlburt. He was a wealthy farmer and fisherman, and they lived in Litchfield, but, according to The Courant's report on her confession, "she did not get along particularly satisfactorily to herself with him, and so she poisoned him."

"Soon after his death she was told by a friend that there was a man in Derby, named Horatio N. Sherman, who had a plenty of money, and had lost his wife, and that by skillful management, if she wanted a third husband, she could probably get him."

She applied for a job as his housekeeper and, according to testimony at her trial, reported by The Courant, "she succeeded in marrying him" about three or four weeks after moving in.

"He had two small children, Ada and Frankie, and these she determined to poison and did poison," according to the story about her confession, "but she did not plan to poison Sherman."

Horatio Sherman was a heavy drinker, who drank "a great deal of cider." He often liked to mix saleratus (baking soda) in with his cider to make it foam. Lydia Sherman had put a package of arsenic she had purchased at Peck's drug-store in New Haven on a shelf beside a similar package of saleratus.

It took testimony from "Professor Barker of Yale College" to persuade the jury to convict Sherman of murder, according to a report in The Courant. Following her husband's death, a doctor had asked Lydia for approval to have an autopsy performed. But secretly, the doctor sent the dead man's liver to the professor for analysis. The professor found enough arsenic to kill three men.

"It is curious that the only death for which she could not be held accountable, according to her story, should be that for which she has been convicted," The Courant observed.

"The trial resulted in a verdict of murder in the second degree, the jury uniting in considering her guilty, but allowing that the circumstantial nature of the evidence permitted of a 'reasonable doubt' and so did not call it of the first degree."

She was sentenced to life in prison — but that wasn't the last that Courant readers heard of Lydia Sherman.

On June 5, 1877, she escaped from the state prison in Wethersfield. However, she was caught because of a slip of the tongue she made when she talked with the wife of the proprietor of a hotel in Providence, where she was staying. She'd introduced herself as Mrs. Brown, but then used a second false name, arousing suspicion.

The prison's matron blamed herself for Sherman's escape. The Courant reported the next day, that "the matron was careless by her own admissions, and she does not seek to defend herself, further than to say that she was deceived in Mrs. Sherman, in who it appears she had something of confidence though she says she felt no sympathy with her."

The article continued that Sherman escaped during the matron's nightly ritual: "It was her habit to say 'good night' to each prisoner and get a response in order to be satisfied that each one was in her cell. She did not, however, always insist upon Mrs. Sherman's answering because of the latter's supposed feebleness."

That feebleness may have been a feint. An 1877 story about a search of Sherman's cell yielded "a piece of crayon of a very 'bilious' color, and from experimenting with it upon the white skin of different persons it was found that a little brisk rubbing would change the color of the cuticle from a clear white to a sickly yellow: and it is now believed that the woman, as a 'crayon artiste,' has for a long time made a complexion to suit the demands of an artificial fever complaint and make prison life endurable."

Lydia Sherman died the following year, at age 51.